Do you Want Someone to Impersonate You to Your LinkedIn Contacts and Leave You Humiliated? Try FounderDating.

[Edit: FounderDating's CEO, Jessica Alter, politely asked me to remove the word "spam" from the title of this post because that word implies I didn't know a message would be sent out. I have changed the post's title at her request.]

A week ago, a friend of mine asked me to write a recommendation for him on FounderDating.com. I happily complied, and when I was done writing the recommendation I was shown pictures of a bunch of my LinkedIn contacts. FounderDating asked me to identify ten that I would vouch for. I didn’t have to do it but I thought oh well, I guess I’ll do it and see what happens. So all I did was click their photos. Nothing more. [Edit: after clicking their photos I clicked a button to submit my selections.]

Bad idea.

As far as I could tell, nothing happened. I figured behind the scenes maybe they would send notes to these people, telling them their contact Brian Morearty had used FounderDating, and suggesting that they try it too. I understand social networking and I understand that when you give an app permission to access a social networking account, your contacts will see that you used it. That would have been ok with me. But what they did was more insidious than that.

FounderDating used the LinkedIn API to send the following note to these ten contacts. I don’t remember being asked to approve the wording–because if I had been asked, I most certainly would not have approved the wording. [Edit: there actually was a link to "see/edit this message" at the bottom left of the form. I apparently didn't see it because it was in the smallest font size on the form and wasn't underlined, the way links often are. If I had clicked it I would have had a chance to change the text of the outgoing message.] I was humiliated this morning when one of my contacts sent me a heartfelt thank-you. I had to write back that while I most definitely do believe in him, I did not write this note.

Here’s what FounderDating wrote to the ten LinkedIn contacts I identified:

Hey [Name],

I was asked to vouch for a few people to join FounderDating – an invite-only network of entrepreneurs (50% engineers) all ready to start their next side-project or company. You’re on my short list. I highly recommend applying.

Apply here > [url]

(Note: copy and paste this link if it’s not clickable).

You can thank me later,
Brian

It seems factually correct, right? Let’s break it down:

  • “Hey [Name]:” personal greeting. Implies that I wrote it myself, not that it was written by someone else to my contacts.
  • “I was asked to vouch for a few people to join FounderDating:” this is accurate. However, again, it implies I wrote this note myself.
  • “You’re on my short list:” well, yes, they did ask me for ten of my contacts. But this gets embarrassingly personal at this point. I highly respect all ten of the people whose photos I clicked. But several of them are people I would not say to their face, “you’re on my short list.”
  • “I highly recommend applying:” EXCUSE ME? When did I recommend applying, much less HIGHLY recommend it?
  • “You can thank me later.” OH MY GOD. What kind of ass says that when he recommends signing up for some online service?

For fuck’s sake, at this point I most certainly DO NOT recommend people use FounderDating. Quite the contrary. I have shut them off from sending more messages on LinkedIn.

Sorry for the rant. I fell for a scam and I’m embarrassed. I hope you will learn from my mistake.

I have written to LinkedIn’s support team notifying them of this abuse of their API Terms of Service. See Section D: “Don’t Harm or Trick Members.”

Your Application must not:

  • Impersonate a LinkedIn user or misrepresent any user or other third party when requesting or publishing information.

Follow-up

On May 8, 2013, this post made the front page of Hacker News and got a lot of attention. FounderDating’s CEO, Jessica Alter, contacted me and we exchanged several emails. She was polite. She requested that I make some corrections to this post, which I have done. Specifically:

  • I added a comment saying that after selecting the pictures of my LinkedIn contacts, I clicked a button to submit the form.
  • I removed the word “spam” from the post’s title because that word “implies we don’t let you know a message goes out.” They did let me know a message would go out. (See screenshot below.) And even if they hadn’t let me know that, I mentioned in the post that I did expect a message to go out.
  • I clarified that there actually was a “see/edit this message” link in the bottom left hand side of the form. I didn’t notice this link because it was in small type and it looked exactly like the text above it, which was not a link.

Here is a screen shot of the form (I blurred the names):

FD form blurred

If you click “See/edit this message” in the bottom left corner, this is what you see:

FD wording

To reiterate, all FounderDating did was send a message I didn’t like to a few people I chose. In addition to requesting that I make clarifications to this post, Ms. Alter asked me what changes I would like to see made to the UI on FounderDating. I requested that they show me the flip-side of the lightbox before the messages get sent, without requiring me to choose to “see/edit” the message. Something like a 2-step wizard would be fine. Step 1: select contacts. Step 2: I am presented with the second screenshot.

I would also like the default message to be less annoying.

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18 Responses to “Do you Want Someone to Impersonate You to Your LinkedIn Contacts and Leave You Humiliated? Try FounderDating.”

  1. Brian Morearty Says:

    By the way, if I post a retraction later on, rest assured it will mean that FounderDating threatened me with a lawsuit unless I retract what I wrote. It will not be sincere.

  2. FounderDating: Nice concept, dodgy viral mechanism | The wannabe VC Says:

    [...] Most importantly the company with the viral mechanism needs to respect the trust that you have put in them by allowing them access to your network. I’m sure FounderDating haven’t been malicious in their viral intentions. It’s just bad implementation. In fact it’s probably working well – I see loads of tweets about them, although I’m not the only one who is unhappy with their endorsing system. [...]

  3. John Nevill Says:

    I sincerely hope you don’t post a retraction, legal threat or not. Everything you’ve said appears to be true, so any threat over libel would be bunk. As such, you could probably get pro bono representation with the help of the magnificent Ken White at Popehat.com

    At any rate, this is a disturbing misuse of your trust and linkedin’s api. Shame on FounderDating.

  4. Robert Coker Says:

    This practice is actually against the Linkedin API Platform Guidelines.

    See section 7: https://developer.linkedin.com/documents/linkedin-platform-guidelines

    Specifically: “For all messages but network updates, the user must be presented with the exact body and subject of the message and have the opportunity to customize both the subject and the body. Pre-prepared messages are allowed only if the user has full control over what is ultimately posted on their behalf.”

    I recommend notifying Linkedin about the abuse.

  5. Andre (@DreWeathers) Says:

    welcome to growth hacking…:)

    • johnhaugeland Says:

      This isn’t growth hacking. This is ugly, deceptive practice.

      Funny thing about pools like founders: they’re very small, and they have a very good memory for poison behavior.

  6. Dana Says:

    Wow. I had this happen too. A number of their email communications impersonate a user, and their writing is not only amateurish, I would be embarrassed to have written what they sent out to some of my business contacts. I second your recommendation to STAY FAR AWAY from these people.

    I even went so far as to communicate with their customer support and product team, and was very turned off by the brush-off I got from them. Here’s one of the notes I sent them:

    —————————
    ** NAME WITHELD **,

    Thanks for getting back to me. I appreciate how tough it can be to make product calls like this, having run a number of different product dev teams in network and marketplace businesses. Consider the below some friendly advice from a fellow entrepreneur and product developer.

    I think the most important thing here (and what your response seems to gloss over) is that for entrepreneurs, asking a trusted colleague or past partner to vouch for you is just about the most intimate request you can make, since they are putting their reputation on the line for you.

    Now, I understand that things aren’t quite so “serious” with FounderDating, but your team obviously treats this part of the process very importantly, and I assume you want your applicants to offer up their best connections to vouch for them.

    So its really surprising to read the email that you send out to applicant connections. Your team chose to write the email in the first person. As such, I’m very sensitive (as I imagine most people would be) that you are putting words in my mouth (a) without showing them to me, and (b) in a tone and voice I would never use and that doesn’t exhibit the level of respect as indicated 2 para above.

    If you were to choose to speak in your own voice and not as the applicant when emailing connections, neither (a) nor (b) would be such a big deal.

    That 2 of the 4 contacts I gave you to contact on my behalf came back to me to tell me they were surprised and a little turned off by the email they received should be a good indication to you that perhaps its time to rethink how your signup process works.

    Or, look at it another way: While I’m asking these people to vouch for me, you’re asking me to vouch for your service. I take both my reputation and my vouches for others very seriously and I don’t offer them without feeling confident in the person (or service) for whom I vouch. In this case, I was surprised and made to feel embarrassed for using a service that would speak to people I’ve worked with for years to build their trust.

    I look forward to hearing back!

    Thanks,


    Dana Spiegel

  7. Josh Benjamin Says:

    As a founder, IT was impersonated in an email sent to people I asked about 40. The opposite of yours. In fact, one of those people came to me let me know that he thought the email was a little weird for me. This type of behavior, similar to the nefarious viral practices of BranchOut leaves a bitter taste in my mouth. I’m conflicted because I think the rest of their product is really amazing, but I cannot sacrifice for that.

    What I need, as a customer, is for them to come out and publicly apologize and change the product as soon as this week. Otherwise, I hope someone builds a new brand with the same features but more respect for customers.

  8. Saving Twitter from spoilers, what makes a startup a startup and more | Bootstrappist Says:

    […] Marketing: Do you want to spam your LinkedIn contacts and be humiliated? Try FounderDating […]

  9. Vincent van der Lubbe Says:

    Brian, I agree. Putting it in small print in the left corner…. I would applaud if they would apologize and say: “We made a mistake and will correct it as soon as possible.” Did they do that?

    And then ask for your opinion on how to change it. In private they might say: “Sorry we were somewhat thoughtless in our viral marketing efforts”. Meaning you know what. That can happen to all of us.

    What I find more interesting: some “smart” people in the startup community propagate the mantra “Don’t ask for permission, ask for forgiveness.” Maybe we should rethink and refine that, especially when it is mainly out of selfinterest and may harm the interests of others.

    • Brian Morearty Says:

      Vincent,

      Jessica Alter, FounderDating’s CEO, did ask me in private what changes I would like to see in the app. See my follow-up note in the post above.

      But no, her communication did not begin with an apology and I have not received an apology, public or private, from anyone at FounderDating. Ms. Alter has called it a “misunderstanding.”

      You make a good point about asking for permission vs. forgiveness.

    • John Nevill Says:

      Doesn’t it just make good business sense to build things that customers want? Knowingly doing something that will cause you to have to ask for forgiveness from your customer seems like a really poor decision. It’s not difficult to keep your customer in mind as you build these things.

      Truly, an apology would go a long way here. They really don’t need to apologize for the layout of their app and the small links at the bottom. Those are questionable, but not terrible. The default email wording though.. that’s damned near unforgivable. I would be mortified if this happened to me.

  10. MOJO Michele (@MOJOHANDYBAGS) Says:

    I LOVE it, although the wording could be adjusted (LOL), the idea and concept is to bring in as many people as possible so the chances of a good match are statistically better for EVERYONE to make things happen. A warm invite to encourage those to become and do things they may have never before thought possible for themselves and their community shouldn’t cause embarrassment. Especially when it is explainable a 3rd party connected the contact.

    The light hearten personal vs uptight professional “OFFICIAL LINKEDIN” tone could be JUST THE INSPIRING MOTIVATION needed to have the courage to push, reach out and JOIN THOSE who want to make shit happen but fearful of doing it alone or concerned about what UPTIGHT JUDGMENTAL BS people through out to stop the doers from doing.

  11. connectwithvkumar Says:

    Wish I had seen this post before I had asked for recommendations. I just sent them out couple of days. Now I am scared and sorry I spammed my linked in contacts.

  12. Steven Says:

    Wow – interesting to see how this developed!

  13. Vishal Kumar Says:

    well.. so far so good. Out of 10 people that I asked to vouch for, 7 responded back with vouches. It’s been more than a week and none of them complained about unintentional messages going out of their linked in account. So far so good.. not a bad experience for me I would say.

  14. Rachel Says:

    I’m not sure why you felt the need to comply with their request that you remove the word “spam” from the title of your post. Looks like spam to me. And I guarantee they’d never risk the bad publicity associated with taking you to court in a misguided attempt to prove otherwise.

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